David Axelrod (born in Los Angeles in 1936)
came to prominence in the early 1960s as a jazz and rock producer,
but his most lasting legacy is likely to be his pioneering work integrating
funk breakbeats, orchestral arrangements and psychedelic melodies, thereby
foreshadowing dance music of the late 1990s.
In 1966-67 he began his association with jazz greats
Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls, and he will remain their trusted producer
for a decade.
In 1967 he virtually redefined the sound of the
Electric Prunes, whose albums are basically his
rather than theirs.
His first two solo albums,
Songs of Innocence (Capitol, 1968), released four months before
VanDyke Parks' Song Cycle, and
Songs of Experience (Capitol, 1969), both
based on William Blake poems, sounded wildly eccentric because they were
arranged for bass, drums and strings (Earl Palmer on drums). Their dark,
depressed ambience predates trip-hop.
Songs of Innocence, a concept album devoted to William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" (1789),
is an instrumental suite played by 33 musicians (and not by Axelrod himself).
Urizen, a magniloquent keyboards-driven fantasia, is the prelude to
the liquid jam with sci-fi overtones Holy Thursday, that sounds like a collaboration between a jazz combo and a neoclassical orchestra; an idea that
was becoming popular after Gunther Schuller's Third Stream project.
The Smile, instead, exudes religious overtones, with a harpsichord dueling with a martial orchestra and a guitar solo that apes the Doors' Light my Fire.
The religious motif is even more prominent in the hymn-like melody of
Song Of Innocence that sounds like a "kyrie" by the Electric Prunes before it turns into a roaring swing number.
The brief Merlin's Prophecy has perhaps the catchies melody, delivered
by a timid harpsichord against brash horns.
Abandoning the jazz element, the highly cinematic
The Mental Traveler closes the album
on a note of strident drones and thriller-like tension.
Songs of Experience continues the concept with another large ensemble.
The songs seem to sense the change that is taking place in rock music,
as the psychedelic exuberance is being replaced sometimes by the brainy mood of
progressive-rock, and jazz-rock in particular
(the busy and magniloquent jazz jam London,
and sometimes by light-weight commercial pop
(The Poison Tree, a typical easy-listening instrumental with the strings playing the melody and the guitar playing the rhythm).
The best pieces fall in between these two extremes:
the fairy-tale atmosphere of A Little Girl Lost,
the mystery and suspense of The Sick Rose,
the folk lullaby The School Boy,
and especially the baroque, keyboards-heavy The Fly, that boasts the best melody.
A Divine Image replays the strident drones of the previous album's closer but this time the music stays in the neurotic register till the end.
These concept albums were followed by another ambitious album,
Earth Rot (Capitol, 1970),
one of the first environmentalist albums.
A suite in eight movements, four of
them titled Warnings and four titled Signs, it was his first
solo album to employ vocals, and not just individual singers but mixed choirs.
The first "warning" is a
Biblical invocation followed by a liquid jazz-rock theme,
and the the second warning introduces the ecstatic choir; but the
kitschy combination of choir and orchestra is dwarfed by the
feverish trumpet solo over swinging drums.
At least the choir sings a catchy melody in the third movement, which also boasts the most creative minute of music at the end:
percussion and horns intone a fanfare and the flute unleashes a vibrant solo.
The fourth warning is a better amalgam of choir and orchestra: calmer and
The first "sign" begins with a kyrie-style female choir but soon the
babbling organ solo injects a soul-jazz spirit.
Alas, the second sign drowns in its own pretentiousness, and the anthemic
struggle of the fifth one falls largely flat.
Then came the mediocre
Rock Messiah (RCA, 1971), a rock interpretation of Handel's masterpiece,
Axelrod's ultimate post-Electric Prunes dream,
The Auction (Decca, 1972), a film soundtrack, was virtually a tribute
to blues music (and contains The Auction and The Leading Citizen).
Axelrod perfected his style as an arranger on
Heavy Axe (february 1974 - Fantasy, 1974),
highlighted by the
sophisticated funk-soul-jazz fusion of My Family,
the festive funk-jazz dance It Ain't For You
and Everything Counts (a seven-minute remake of
Holy Thursday), but hampered by inferior material and a hanfdul of
(Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing,
Cannonball Adderley's Get Up Off Your Knees,
Vince Guaraldi's Cast Your Fate To The Wind
Carly Simon's You're So Vain).
Then came the trilogy of electronic funk albums each containing six long songs:
Seriously Deep (Polydor, 1975), another stand-out in terms of
sophistication and beats, performed by a band that included
several reed players, including Ernie Watts on flute, oboe, and tenor saxophone.
The eight-minute Miles Away is an elegant, smooth, exotic, cinematic fantasia with synth solos by Joe Sample.
That dense and dynamic style permeates the other eight-minute suite, 1000 Rads, but this time the rhythm is derailed by syncopated drumming, and at some
point the music is so disjointed that
guitar, horns and organ appear to be playing different songs;
Watts' comic solo unifies it again and delivers it to a baroque cello solo
over tiptoeing percussion.
One, perhaps the standout, is many things in one: a catchy organ melody, a gentle horn fanfare, an ominous barking bass synth, and intricate Afro-Cuban drumming tapestry by Leon "Ndugu" Chancler.
Less festive and more pensive, Ken Russell has a neoclassical undercurrent pinned to Watts' flute moves.
Even more restrained and "neoclassical", the seven-minute Reverie borders
on impressionism with the flute leading the dance.
Strange Ladies (MCA, 1977) contains
Aunt Charlotte, a lively piece exuding the festive mood of a street marching band, and the nine-minute Mujer Extrana, in which the solo instruments take shifts at intoning
a soulful Latin melody over a bolero-style drumbeat against a backdrop of epic
Ennio Morricone-style strings;
but the album wastes much of its potential in lounge ballads (Terri's Tune, Sandy).
The funk is watered down, and the jazz is virtually non-existent.
Nonetheless, Mujer Extrana is one of Axelrod's peaks.
Marchin' (MCA, 1980),
is certainly better than the mediocre Strange Ladies, but not as refined
as Seriously Deep, and it doesn't feature a track worthy of
Mujer Extrana. Its centerpiece, the eight-minute Wandering Star,
is a rather somnolent jam by Axelrod's standard. The trick of having
the solo instruments take turns at repeating the leitmotif over a creative
rhythm works in
Dr T (opened by a delirious violin) and
Threnody for a Brother (opened by
trumpets that make it sound like a military funeral, and
possibly the most swinging piece here), but the music is not as lively and
driving as before.
The solo of electric piano in Spectrum is cute, and
the prominent funk number Jahil bites with fractured organ phrases;
but even the players seem to be affected by a general sense of fatigue.
At times, the laid-back atmosphere borders on mournful.
After a long hiatus, Axelrod ventured into semi-classical music
with the ambitious
Requiem - The Holocaust (Liberty, 1993) in four movements,
each one a chamber composition with vocals:
the ten-minute Introit / Krystallnacht,
the eleven-minute Kyrie / Trains,
the ten-minute Sanctus / Auschwitz (with droning female voices and lugubrious disjointed counterpoint before a soprano intones a soulful narrative),
and the 13-minute Dies Irae / Gas Chambers.
The vocals remain Axelrod's weakest point.
The Big Country (Liberty, 1995) was an odd tribute to country music.
In the 1990s Axelrod's breakbeats were re-discovered by several disc-jockeys
(e.g., DJ Shadow)
who began sampling his grooves.
David Axelrod (Mo' Wax, 2001) builds songs out of rhythm tracks that
Axelrod had recorded in 1968 for an unreleased Electric Prunes album;
majestic, richly textured orchestral tapestries,
tastefully arranged by veterans of rock, soul and jazz
(The Little Children, Crystal Ball,
The Shadow Knows,
Fantasy for Ralph, For Land's Sake, Loved Boy).
The Edge (Blue Note, 2005) collects material from his classic
albums of 1966-70.
Axelrod died in february 2017 at the age of 83.